The rise of Christianity in India has been a complex and fascinating phenomenon. Christianity spread in India for over 2000 years and it has been a major force in shaping the nation’s social, cultural and political landscape. From the earliest missionary activities to the most recent religious conversions, the history of Christianity in India has been a story of cultural exchange and religious dialogue. To understand how Christianity spread in India, it is important to look at the cultural backdrop of the country and the growth of missionary activity.
One of the earliest references to Christianity in India appears in the works of the philosopher Thomas Malthus who described a Christian settlement in Kerala in AD 52. Over the next few centuries, Christianity began to spread in coastal areas, particularly in coastal Kerala where the Syrian Christians are believed to have first settled. One of the key events that helped in the spread of Christianity in India was the arrival of missionary activity in the 3rd century AD. Early missionaries from Cairo, Alexandria and Syria arrived in India and their work moved from the southern coastal areas to the interior. These missionaries argued for the conversion of Indian rulers and elites to Christianity and established churches, schools and seminaries for these purposes.
The spread of Christianity, however, was not aided by the persecution of Christian missionaries at the hands of local rulers. In AD 837, the Mahanavami of Kochi issued a proclamation that banned the construction of churches and conversions of people to Christianity. This proclamation put an end to the spread of Christianity in the region. In the 11th and 12th centuries, Christian missionaries arrived in western India and set up churches in the states of Gujarat and Maharashtra. In the early 16th century, Christianity began to become more prominent, thanks to the arrival of Portuguese vessels which brought with them masses of European converts. Some of these Europeans settled in India, leading to further spread of the religion.
The arrival of Christianity in India also led to increased religious dialogue and intellectual exchange between Indian and Christian scholars.Scholars such as Theophilus and Eusebius from the Christian world exchanged their knowledge of the Bible, theology and philosophy with Indian scholars. Similarly, Indian scholars and mystics such as Swami Vivekananda exchanged their insights and teachings with Christian thinkers and missionaries. This exchange of knowledge and ideas led to the proliferation of Christianity in India, particularly in the north and south of the country.
In the 19th century, Christianity had spread widely in India and there was a significant increase in conversions to the faith. This was largely facilitated by missionaries from Europe who worked to convert locals who were living in poverty and without education. In addition, the period also saw conversions of certain Indian rulers and leaders to Christianity in an effort to gain economic and social benefits. Such conversions provided further impetus to the spread of Christianity in India.
Today, Christianity is one of the major religions in India and it is estimated that there are over 30 million Christians in the country. Christianity has had a profound impact on the Indian culture and has contributed to the nation’s social and spiritual development. Similarly, Indian culture has also shaped the religion in various ways, as evidenced by the longstanding presence and influence of Hinduism on Christianity in India. Through its long history of exchange and dialogue, Christianity has become an integral part of Indian society.
Role of Political Struggles and Authoritarianism
The spread of Christianity in India was also aided by the political struggles and authoritarianism of the period. During the colonial period, Christianity was viewed as a tool to maintain control over India. The British encouraged conversions to Christianity and even used it as a lever of power by granting resources and favors to those who embraced it. This was an effective way for the British to control the masses and reinforce their authority. Simultaneously, Hinduism was stifled and rejected. As a result, conversions to Christianity—largely facilitated by Christian missionaries—were a major factor in the spread of the religion in India.
At the same time, certain Indian freedom fighters and political leaders also embraced Christianity as a means of protest against the oppressive rule of the British. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, is remembered as one of the earliest Indian leaders who advocated for the acceptance of Christianity in India. He encouraged religious dialogue and tolerance and declared that India was a secular nation. This helped to further the acceptance of Christianity in India.
The spread of Islam in India also played a major role in the spread of Christianity. During the Mughal rule, Muslim rulers initiated many conversions to Islam, particularly amongst the lower castes, in an effort to unify their empire. This proved to be a major factor in the spread of Christianity in India. The Emperor Akbar, in particular, was a great proponent of religious tolerance and dialogue. He welcomed Christian missionaries to court and even granted them concessions and privileges. His approach to religious minorities contributed to the spread of Christianity in India.
At the same time, the spread of Islam was also seen to contribute to the erosion of Hindu traditions in India. This created an opening for Christianity in the country as many people began to question the validity of Hinduism and seek out different religious communities that offered a more compassionate and inclusive worldview. This allowed missionaries to seize opportunities to convert people to Christianity.
The spread of Christianity in India was also supported by the fact that the Christian faith is considered to be a ‘religion of love’ that encourages the celebration of joy and the uplifting of people from all walks of life. This egalitarian aspect of Christianity meant that it resonated with the people of India who had experienced religious oppression and subjugation at the hands of Muslim rulers. The beauty and simplicity of Christianity made it attractive to people who were seeking compassion and understanding in a society still reeling from the effects of colonial rule.
Modern Day Spread and Impact
Today, the spread of Christianity in India continues, fuelled largely by missionary activity and conversions. One of the largest evangelistic organizations in India, Gospel for Asia, has been engaged in conversion activities in India since the late 1960s. Similarly, the Indian church is now home to a growing number of converts from all backgrounds, including high-caste Hindus and Muslims. The Church is now also more open to inter-faith dialogues and collaborations, further aiding the spread of Christianity in India.
In terms of its impact, Christianity has left an indelible mark on India’s culture and history. From the arrival of St. Thomas in AD 52 to the large-scale conversion movements of the 19th and 20 centuries, Christianity has deeply shaped India’s society and its outlook on religion, politics and culture. It has also had a profound influence on Indian literature, art and music. Through its long history in India, Christianity has become an integral part of the nation’s identity and its vibrant culture.
Theologians and Experts
Theologians and experts on Indian Christianity draw attention to the fact that the spread of Christianity in India is largely the result of the combination of several factors, including missionary activity, political struggles and authoritarianism, Islamic influence and the resilience of Indian cultures. They also highlight the importance of conversion and of emphasizing religious freedom, dialogue and understanding in order to further the spread of Christianity in India.
Christianity’s impact on Indian culture is also further emphasized by scholars. Dr. Roy John, an assistant professor of religious studies at St. Andrew’s College in Edinburgh, has highlighted the profound influence of Christianity on Indian culture and society, stating, ‘The presence of Christianity in India impacted the nation’s social and spiritual development, shaped its culture and outlook, and has become an important part of India’s identity.’
Christianity in India has spread over the past 2000 years and today it is one of the major religions of the country. Its spread was facilitated by various factors, including missionary activity, political struggles and authoritarianism, Islamic influence and the resilience of Indian cultures. At the same time, it has had a profound impact on Indian culture and society, which is evident in its literature, art and music. It is clear that Christianity’s spread in India was and still is shaped by complex cultural, political and religious dynamics.